Friday, 20 February 2015

Football in Canada ... But Not Canadian Football

Football in Canada is intertwined with football in the United States in a manner that might be unique in the history of world sport when one considers two countries that play what is nearly the same game that initially developed more or less independently in both nations. Throughout the last century influences from the much larger American football industry as well as a majority of the most significant players in CFL history came out of the United States into Canada.

But cross border overlaps between the sports, leagues, teams and players encompass much forgotten football history besides that which most football fans are aware of, namely the CFL's failed expansion into the United States in the mid nineties and the less than hugely successful (despite the hype) series of games played by the Buffalo Bills in Toronto recently.

For a few years during the sixties a rival league to the CFL operated in three Canadian cities but the Continental Football League, which struggled to shake its semi-pro image over its five year (1965 - 1969) lifespan, of course played American football and not Canadian football.

The Toronto Rifles franchise lasted for three seasons from 1965-1967 and they even competed in the league's inaugural championship game losing 24-7 to the Charlston (West Virginia) Rockets in 1965.
The Montreal Beavers franchise lasted for two seasons from 1966-1967 and the Victoria Steelers played in just 1967 but after a mid-season managerial shakeup the franchise changed their name to the Victoria Tyees.

The ties between the CFL and the Continental League are numerous and when you consider that Tom Wilkinson (Toronto Rifles) and Don Jonas (Orlando Panthers) played in the league one's opinion of what the calibre of play was like might need to be adjusted upwards. Leo Cahill is shown laying out the coaching strategy for the Rifles in the program below on the right. Numerous other coaches and players would also operate in both leagues.

There are no known trading cards for any of the teams but team pictures and game programs and various ephemera such as game tickets were produced. I had decided not to include any of this material in Volume 2 or any subsequent volumes of Collecting Canadian Football for the simple reason that they did not play Canadian football. However that does not mean that it is not a fascinating aspect of football history in Canada and that collecting the available material is not challenging and interesting.

The above team picture is of the 1967 Montreal Beavers courtesy of photographer Ed Bermingham, who readers of Collecting Canadian Football Volume 2 will know as the long time team photographer for the Montreal Alouettes. Also pictured is a Toronto Rifles away ticket.

The above left program shows Baseball superstar Jackie Robinson who was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers franchise and he was honoured in Montreal at the game. Robinson of course had played minor league baseball for the Montreal Royals of the International League before breaking the colour barrier in the majors and he was intensely popular in Montreal. Lesser known is that he also excelled at football in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League before the war where he played with and against numerous players who would end up in Canada such as Sugarfoot Anderson and Woody Strode (another forgotten league whose calibre of play was probably higher than it is credited with). This program recently sold on ebay for $300 because of the Robinson factor.

The other program shows that the Toronto Rifles were probably the relocated Quebec Rifles of the 1964 United Football league, another briefly cross border experiment and the rival coaches Sam Etcheverry and Bob Snyder on the cover makes it clear there were many links with the CFL in that league as well.

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